While today’s Winnipeggers are mostly well-informed about the workings of city hall, primarily derived from media reports, there was a time when residents had little or no understanding about how such an institution performed its duties. One hundred and forty years ago this month, Winnipeggers were for the first time given a glimpse of the “business” of city hall. While today’s Winnipeggers may be somewhat suspicious about what occurs at city hall — in light of reports of land swaps involving civic employees and substantial cost overruns for a downtown police headquarters — yesteryear residents were more apt to react with marvel and pride that a city was created in the midst of the prairies, which was expected to bring them all the benefits of a municipal form of government, although they weren’t quite sure how these benefits were actually implemented.
“The first meeting of the first council in the first city of the North-West” was held at noon on Monday, January 19, 1874, in the Bentley Building, near the northwest corner of Portage and Main, reported the Manitoba Free Press. The novelty of holding a council meeting in the newly-incorporated city found the “chamber filled with people whose business it was to be there, and people who came to see how the thing worked anyway.”
Once they eventually recognized “how the thing worked,” the realization arose that of the three levels of government in Canada (federal, provincial and municipal), municipal governments are the closest to the people, providing the infrastructure and services essential to their everyday existence.
One of the few people who had first-hand knowledge about the workings of a city council was the newly-elected mayor, who had earlier been the mayor of London, Ontario. When the ballots for mayor in the first civic election were tallied on January 5, 1874, lawyer Francis Evans Cornish held a 383-179 margin of victory over W.F. Luxton, the publisher of the Free Press. Many of the aldermen (today’s councillors) elected were businessmen or professionals with some or no council experience, although most were familiar with how such institutions functioned as a result of originally being from Eastern Canada.
As mayor, Cornish “stated that he would endeavour to be guided by fairness towards all classes of the community,” according to a report in the January 24, 1874, Manitoban, “and that at the end of the year it would be his pride to deliver back the seals of office unsullied and pure in every respect.”
After Cornish was given the oath of office, he addressed the city council and gave an outline of Winnipeg’s incorporation as a city by the provincial government on November 8, 1873 — a town of just 1,869 people became a city. The mayor said that it was the council’s responsibility to discharge its duties effectively so as to convince everyone that “incorporation would prove advantageous to all” (Manitoban, January 24, 1874).
Cornish said the council had the task of laying the foundation of municipal institutions that had “great consequences to the great North-West (territory),” according to a January 24, 1874, report of the first council meeting in the Free Press. The mayor even made the lofty claim that the council’s decisions in Winnipeg had consequences for the “great Western world.”
Paraphrasing Cornish, the Free Press reported: “When it was known abroad that Winnipeg had been incorporated, and had its council legislating for its improvement, it would do more for the place than all the acts of legislature that could be manufactured, and the city would increase rapidly in size and importance.”
Despite such aspirations, the council business of the first meeting was quite mundane, involving the appointment of city employees and aldermen to committees. But it should be noted that such appointments were essential to the operation of the new city. Cornish exercised the privilege conferred upon him as the chief municipal official and appointed Colin F. Strang as the mayor’s auditor. The council appointed John Balsillie as its auditor. The appointment of the auditors was enacted through By-Law No. 1. — the city’s first ever — which the council passed after three readings.
Committee appointments included aldermen Capt. Thomas Scott, W.B. Thibaudeau, Archibald Wright and John Byron More to examine the qualifications of various applicants for city positions.
Actually, a number of individuals had already forwarded their names for consideration for administrative positions. Willoughby Clark, A.M. Brown and A.D. Fisher and a Mr. Hoskins asked to be considered as city clerk, while those vying for the position of assessors were J. Crowson and Rudolph Sicotte. T.H. Parr and Robert Bolurne wanted to be the city engineer, Duncan McVicar wrote to council asking to be appointed chamberlain, while R.F. Jackson asked to be considered for chief of police.
In the following weeks, the aldermen voted on the city positions, which increased in number as each day passed. A.M. Brown was elected the city clerk, Lyster Hayward became chamberlain (he resigned shortly after, complaining about the meagre salary and James S. Ramsay was appointed in his place), Thomas H. Parr was elected the city engineer, Willoughby Clark and Alexander Brown were elected the assessors, while John S. Ingram became the city’s first chief of police. At another meeting, it was decided that the city clerk would receive the highest salary of $800 a year, followed by the chief of police at $750, the chamberlain was to receive $400 a year, assessors were to receive $200 each, the tax collectors $250 each, and two police constables were each to receive an annual salary of $550.
At 7 p.m. during the first meeting, the committee on standing committees reported its recommendations, which were adopted. Named to the various committees were: finance — Scott, Andrew Strang, Wright and William Gomez Fonseca; printing — Thibaudeau, John McLenaghen, James H. Ashdown and Alexander Logan; board of works — Scott, Robert Mulvey, Higgins and More; market — Strang, Herbert Swinford, Logan and McLenaghen; fire and water — Scott, Mulvey, Wright and More; and assessment — Ashdown, Thibaudeau, Swinford and Fonseca. The mayor was made a member of each standing committee. Strang, Wright, Fonseca and Scott were appointed to a committee to draft rules of order for the council.
With the appointment of the standing committees, the first city council meeting ended. It wasn’t much of beginning, but it formed the basis of what Winnipeggers should expect from their city government. Today, as was the case 140 years ago, residents retain the expectation that their government “prove advantageous to all.” As was noted in 1874, the implementation of parliamentary procedures by the first council, which are still used today, ensured that council would be in a position to “answer to the public good.”